Friday, April 19, 2013

Slow Mag Half Marathon: A score for low mileage?

Kind of.

Sort of.

But not really.

The result was on paper an excellent one, as all PBs should be celebrated. The process however was anything but smooth.

In reality, Slow Mag on 14th April should not have been part of my racing plans. Or I should have found someone to run with and let them dictate the pace. My brother was due to run his first half marathon there but unfortunately got injured. It might have been a good time to see if I could pace him to his target sub 1:40. Instead I lined up on my own, and when at the start of a race, my inner competitor always emerges!

You see I was rather under cooked. My speed is great, the 10km times tell their own story, pretty much where the coach wanted me at this point in the year heading into winter. Such has been the focus on speed though, that while I have been doing a Sunday long run, in general, time on feet has been minimal. I'm typically running less than 3 hours a week on 5 sessions and year to date had averaged 38km per week. My peak week of 52km was an accident, with an unscheduled 15km midweek run inflating that number. And also looking at 10km programs circulating the web and in magazine, my weekly mileage is below what is typically recommended for the times I'm trying to run. I have to run this mileage by design. In  running terms my legs are young and upwards of 50km week in week out will leave me tired and injury prone. My goal is to do, as Tim Noakes is credited with saying, I must find the quote, as much as I can and only expose myself to higher mileage when I stop improving.

So with that in mind, I was conflicted as to how to approach the race. Looking at my 10km times, somewhere in the region of 1:20-1:21:30 was predicted, and a conservative estimated would push that upper boundary to 1:22:00. The plan was to go out at around 3:50 pace and just see what happens. With the second a bit hillier, I would expect to hit 10km in 38ish, drop a gear and do the next 10km in 39ish and then see what happens. What I actually expected to happen was a bigger fall in pace from about 15km and then hanging on for dear life for the last kilometer or song.

The first 10km was remarkably uneventful. I ran at a surprisingly consistent pace, no surges or drops, and went through 5km in 19:05 and then through 10km in 38:05. I had my usual rhythm and compared to usually trying hit 3:36/km in a 10km this was comfortable.

So far so good.

Unfortunately at 10km we are well into Ebotse and hit the golf cart trail and I think I took more out of myself here than I would have wanted. I did Slow Mag last year, but was further back in the pack. I had traffic to deal with and I think I saved a bit of energy since it's difficult to overtake anyone here. This year being further up in the field I was able to stride out properly, and the combination of the turns and the hard concrete really took it's toll. When we emerged onto the road I was feeling okay but no longer comfortably maintaining pace. My pace was now onto about 4min/km and at 13km my right calf tightened and I had to stop to stretch it out.

I know the area well and I knew that from 15km the course is gentler to the finish so I eased off the pedal a bit hoping to put in a late burst. I got tot the 15km mark in 58:50, a 15km PB I must add, so about 4:09/km for the 10-15km stretch.

I was in a bit of a crowd at this stage and was using the runners to pace myself. At 17km the calf tightened again and more stretching ensued. I progressed regularly trouble free from that point, just concentrating on hitting the 4min/km mark. It was hard work but I just concentrated on knocking off each kilometre until I got onto the grass at Benoni Northerns. There would no kick, and I coasted in and stopped the clock at 1:22:46, a solid PB of almost 3 minutes. This was good enough for 25th place on the day. Last year I finished in 124th place and in 1:38:42, so a good 15:56 quicker. Progress, lots of it!

This wasn't my strongest race of the year. And I think it took a bit the more out of me than I had hoped. On Wednesday we had a time trial challenge hosted by us Kudus against Old Eds, Pirates and a few other clubs. It was only 5km but at about 3km my legs were jelly and I laboured to an 18:47 run, which I reckon would be my slowest 5km of the year (the 4th km split was in 4:27!). I've recorded faster 5km splits in pretty much all my 10km races except the 2nd half of McCarthy (hilly) and Kosmos 3-in-1 (hot). And in training I've been able to hit out controlled 18:45 5km paced runs.

The flipside of course is that on proper training for the distance I would expect to do significantly better and that's what I hope to see when I do a trained for half marathon in November.

For now I'll be nursing myself back into shape for my May races, Colgate 15km and Jakaranda Centre Race of Hope 10km on the 5th and 11th respectively. The aim there is too bring my 15km time in line with my other PBs and to have one last go at a 35 minute clocking for the 10km before easing off into winter base training.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Race Report: Mazda Athletic Club 10km

I fell short, but I went for it, that 35 minute 10km.

Leading into the Mazda 10km, I really had no idea what kind of condition I was in with respect to 10km racing. I did a ~7km run on Wednesday at 4:02/km, so steady but not fast and felt okay. On Thursday I did 10x200m at 10km pace with 60 seconds recovery. For such a short distance, I found it difficult to get into race pace and found myself doing the reps at closer to what I guess would be 5km pace for me, 3:27-3:31/km with two outliers, one at 3:15/km and one nailed on at 3:36/km or 36:00 10km pace. I felt okay but just didn't have the rhythm of old. If anything, I felt creaky, spending a lot of time trying to figure out how far out to reach, how quickly to turn my legs, things that I had been taking for granted throughout the year.

Nerves and more nerves

So when I headed out to the Ford Sports and Recreation Centre I was nervous, not from expectation which is what usually happens, and is good nerves, but because I was actually riddled with doubt, something that I haven't experienced probably since that painful 35-41km stretch during Soweto Marathon. Once I dropped down to my preferred distance, I have had the confidence to take on any race, and even if I failed my objective, I would look forward to the next attempt. This time as I went through my warm up, which I aborted quicker than usual, I was almost longing for the the end of the race to be done.

Then at 6:30 the referee announced that there would be a 5 minute delay. Last year this race seemed small to me compared to other races I did. It was mid May, right in Comrades taper so I guess a lot of runners were putting their feet up. Indeed there were just 1600 finishers combined for the 10km and half marathon, smaller than individual distances at most races. I had done the 5km that day and come 2nd despite running, for podium places anyway, a pedestrian 19:25. Now despite leaving home at 5:10 am, with the race venue in suburban terms a stone throw away, I was only parked 40 minutes later. There was a ridiculous queue for the toilets and after the race I even found myself parked in!

A sensible start

Once the start gun was fired it was a mad rush to the first corner and for once I backed off and let the crowd stream past and got into my natural pace. Despite these good intentions it was still a fast opening salvo. I made a point of noting my splits at each of the markers and I passed the first km board in 3:24, identical to the Bonitas 10km Challenge, which didn't quite go according to plan. At least this was a slight downhill. I got to the 2km mark in 6:54, a 3:30 split and then a long stretch of gradual uphill was on hand and my pace drifted into the 3:40s, going through in 10:36, 14:18, 18:02 (3:42, 3:42, 3:44 splits). At least now I could attribute my slowing down to the elevation but I was equally being timid. This was Deloitte-esque, gentle enough. I had hoped to get through 5km in 18:10 so 18:02 was not too bad.

Close but no cigar

From 5km the course got a bit more pleasent as the route leveled off and then we had some nice downhill. I got to 6km in 21:31 with a 3:29 split that was all gravity! At this point though I stopped enjoying the race as we hit the crowd coming up as well sharing the road with some vehicles. It was a bit unsettling as I was pushing myself of cars and trying to to avoid running into people running in the opposite direction The route started climbing again and my splits slowed. I missed the 7km board but hit 8km in 29:01, so 7:30 at 3:45 pace for that stretch. Another 3:45 split followed, going through 9km in 32:46 then I tried to put the hammer down. I didn't feel quite so strong but when I hit the grass again the clock had just ticked over into the 35s and I tried to turn my legs but alas there was nothing like the finish I managed at Deloitte, but a 3:28 last km brought me home in 36:14. The second half was actually less challenging but I was unable to get through it quicker but can't really complain with an 18:12 second half. And truth be told, if you had told me 6 months ago I could string together back to back sub 18:30 5km I would have literally laughed in your face!

Mazda Athletic Club 10km Route Profile
To put the run into perspective, I was only 5 seconds short of the 36:13 I ran at the Bonitas 10km Challenge. While that race was compromised slightly, it was on the coast and ridiculously flat! So to be 1400m higher and contend with 45m elevation gain and get close to a PB is a positive.

That positive vibes aside, I did feel a tinge of disappointment. I'm not inherently competitive, in that I know that this is a work in progress, and so I tend to focus on what I'm doing. I do however notice who finishes in front and behind, and a runner that I have finished ahead of every time we've shared the road since the Great Run race in December, streaked ahead and try as I might I could not bridge the gap. Looking at the gap as they hit the grass I would guess they ran at least 35:55, and that's where I was hoping to be. Having said that I also haven't had the best conditioning in the last three weeks. I felt like I was competing on borrowed time, with training gains from February.

One last positive. I mentioned in that last post that I believe I'm now a 37 min 10km runner. To explain, that means even if I got a call on Friday night to hit a run on the Saturday I think I would back myself to nail a 37 min time and time again, unless the route resembled something like the Mini Monster. What is interesting though is that out of the seven 10km races I have run this year four  have been quicker than 37:00.
  1. McCarthy Toyota 37:27
  2. Tuks Bestmed 37:01
  3. Deloitte Pretoria 36:50
  4. Kosmos 3-in-1 38:32
  5. Om Die Dam 36:36
  6. Bonitas 10km Challenge 36:13
  7. Mazda 10km 36:14
And adding the post Soweto 10km races from last year:
  1. Kollonade Retail Park 38:22
  2. Tom Jenkins 42:13 (something fishy with this one as I clocked 40:53 on my watch, and there's a 40:53 in the results, but there was a huge storm and some 5km runners had infiltrated the 10km finished queue)
  3. Great Run 37:34 (my clock time was 37:46)
  4. Old Year's 38:25
So in 11 10km races since Soweto, 1x 40:xx, 3x 38:xx, 3x 37:xx and 4x 36:xx

With just one more 10km penciled in before a short winter break that will lead into base training through the bulk of the cold season, I'm hoping for a solid 5 weeks of training that will allow me to add a 35:xx to that list of times, and begin the shift towards targeting that sub 35:00 10km in the Spring/Summer that is the ultimate prize for me in 2013! 

Before that I have a half marathon to worry about. Yikes!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Optimal Pacing?: Lessons From The Best

Lately I've been thinking about heading out to a race and leaving my watch behind. I know some people that have the confidence to do so. My wife has been running without a watch all year, preferring to trust her judgement and also not being pressured into chasing splits. She is an ultramarathon runner and in some ways, certainly outside the level of elite runners, as one heads into longer distances the margins are less fine. I'm focusing my peak performances on 5km and 10km races, using 15km and a few half marathon races for stamina and endurance training. For me the margins are fine. If you lose 30 seconds on a kilometre in a 50km race, one can strategize on the fly to get that time back. For me 30s in a 5km and even a 10km race will take a serious effort to claw back, with these races lasting ~18:00 and ~38:00 for me.

Pacing is such an integral part of racing. There are many ways to run a given time for a distance, but one way will often be a bit more comfortable than another. I've been spectating at a lot of races, supporting my wife and my club mates from Varsity Kudus, and I'll often seen two athletes finishing side by side, yet in contrasting condition. When one peruses running resources, the advise is very clear that for middle, long and ultra distances, an even pace, where conditions will allow, is most ideal. It suggests increasing effort as a race progresses but if the effort has been distributed properly one should be able to maintaining pace at the end of a race and even have a bit in the tank for a little kick!

I came across an article posted in Sweat Science on the Runner's World site called The Disadvantages of Perfect Pacing which really got me thinking. Last year I inadvertently perfected pacing. I started off running very negative split races, like running the last 11.1km of a half marathon quicker than the first 10km to eventually running even splits on a course with some climbs. Part of it was that because I was in a rapid phase of improvement I could rarely take a similar strategy into races even a few weeks apart. So I tended to find a comfortable effort and hold on to it. But now while I'm still improving the gains are becoming comparatively marginal and I'm having to think about what I'm doing constantly. The Sweat Science article really stood out for me because it presents a scenario where very very good athletes are shown to eschew the sensibilities of even pacing and rather push the envelope. That is encapsulated by this rather excellent quote from the article:

According to conventional physiology, steady pacing is the most efficient way to ration your energy stores. Its logic has been taken for granted since Aesop and his tortoise. But it is inherently limiting: to run at an even pace, you have to decide on your final finishing time, and thus set a ceiling on your potential achievement, before the starting gun fires. As a result, even pacing may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers: jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.
That quote really speaks to me. My goals for the year and with my margins for error becoming finer as I get faster suggests that at some point I will HAVE to ditch sensibility and go for it. In fact when I ran 37:46 at the Great Run last year that's precisely what I did. At the start I found myself in a group of runners that at races have typically run around or just faster than my pace. On this day, I felt really good, so I surged ahead and chased another group with more runners I recognized who I only really see at the start and the finish of races! My goal was not to catch them, but to keep them in my sights. As the kilometres ticked by, this group was edging further away but next thing I was 8km into the race. My legs started to burn but I hung on and shattered my PB, producing by my standards an outlier performance. Nothing in my training had suggested I could run that fast. Had I raced as I had planned, I would have run 38:30. Sometimes it pays to be adventurous.

I suppose the question depends really on the ambition of the runner. I was watching the Lisbon Half Marathon just the other day, and the Kenyan Bernard Koech set out with a mission to to break Zersenay Tadese's astonishing 58:23 world record. He set out a blistering pace, going through 10km in 27:17, 57:34 pace! But as the race wore on he was still running quickly but by 16km was already outside world record pace, in 45:20 and by the finish over a minute outside the record in 59:54. His pace for the first 10km was a mind boggling 2:44 min/km but the for the remaining 11.1km 2:56 min/km. Contrast this with Tadese who went through 10km in 27:53, 2:47 min/km but covered the next 11.1km in 30:30 at a pace of 2:45 min/km. He just ramped his pace up and even his final 1.1km was under his average pace for the WR. And having seen both races he looked in a lot better shape at the end than Koech. And remarkably enough, Koech was 'only' 2s/km faster than the WR for that first 10km but thereafter 10s/km slower.

One might think that Elite running has nothing to do with us mere mortals but I'm a firm believer that if I'm going to be a better runner these are the people I want to be learning from. It's not about emulating them but taking the principles of their approaches and applying them appropriately to my situation. And on that pacing front I've certainlu been more Bernard Koech that Zersenay Tadese in all but two of my six 10km races this year. Possibly like Koech's approach, I always look to bank time by building myself a buffer but neglect to appreciate how quickly one can fall off the cliff even in a race as short as 10km. Have a look at these splits from my last 10km race:
  1. 3:24
  2. 3:26
  3. 3:30
  4. 3:35
  5. 3:39
  6. 3:44
  7. 3:45
  8. 3:44
  9. 3:42
  10. 3:45
These splits are from the Bonitas 10km Challenge from 23rd March in Cape Town. This was 1) the flattest race I have ever run and 2) at the coast. The final time was 36:13, a 23 second PB which is about the only real positive from the race. All things considered this was a real opportunity for me to real test myself and I ruined it by going through 3km in 10:20. That was excellent pacing for a 5km. Once I had hit 4km in 13:55 I would have had the confidence to put out a 3:20 final kilometre but alas I still had 6km to go. A 5km split of 17:34 would be as good as it got as I limped home in 18:39 for the remaining 5km. Consider that at Deloitte I finished with a 3:28 final kilometer on course with ~100m elevation gain.

My goal for the Bonitas race was simply to break 36:00. I fell 14 seconds short and in hindsight my fate was sealed at that 3km mark. Had I gone out at 3:36 min/km pace, I would have gone through in 10:48, and I am 100% certain  I wouldn't be running at 3:44 pace in the second half, outside my average pace for most races I have run this year. A 10:48 first 3km, which would been closer to 18:00 for 5km would have still been aggressive, but with flatness of the course would have been conservative enough in the circumstances given that I still finished with an average pace of 3:37 min/km. A 3:27 min/km pace for the first third, when aiming for 3:36 in average, was in running terms suicidal and in some ways I'm surprised I got that close to 36:00 in the end.

My take home message from the Sweat Science article, studying some elite performances and then looking at my own running is that a little bravery goes a long way but must be married to some sensibility. I'm certainly on the quest for that outlier performance. I believe that at this point in time, I am a regulation 37 minute 10km runner  and if I work a little bit harder I will drop into the 36 minute range. But with a little bit of sensible aggression that 35 minute 10km will surely come, even in the thin air of the highveld! Then I can shift my regulation performance to 36 minute and target that sub 35 minute dream.

This weekend I have the Mazda Athletic Club 10km. I did the 5km last year and broke 20 minutes for the first time. The 10km is described by Runner's World as 'flat, yet challenging', so standard fare for the highveld then! I never like to make excuses for my runs but I was ill before the Bonitas 10km Challenge then had an 18 hour drive to Cape Town two days before. And though I don't believe it affected my performance, it has meant that training has not gone according to plan. The 29:01 I did at the Two Oceans 8km Fun Run however suggests that my form is good, if a little rusty, and as I said a few lapses in concentration aside, I could have run around 28:50 on the day, not bad effort for a 15:00 race. However, the quality has evaporated from my training in the last three weeks. On Saturday though I still plan to be aggressive as I search for my outlier performance of the season but plan to be more Tadese than Koech, sensibly aggressive, looking for closer to 11:00 for the first 3km and staying away from the 10:30 level. I certainly believe in running close the edge and hopefully having enough in the tank for one finally kick. BUT, no more 5km PBs in 10km races!!!

Happy racing!